science fiction

The fiction of the $100-million search for ET and Earth-like planets

The discovery of an Earth-like planet and a new $100-million quest for extra-terrestrial intelligence shows life imitating sci-fi art.

“The only truly alien planet is Earth”. That was J. G. Ballard's famous dictum when it came to a complete overhaul of the priorities of science fiction in the 1960s. And it makes sense too, when you think about it. When it comes to devising alien creatures fictionally, we draw almost all our inspirations from the diverse forms of animal life on Earth, humans included, as well as plants.

Some of these creatures are far more intricately engineered and meticulously conceived by the powers that be, than your average alien monstrosity concocted by Hollywood. But there's the rub, as it were: why this need to keep inventing alien terrains and creatures, when there is already so much we do not know about?

For alien life and first contact are the truly hoary old standards of science fiction. They've arguably been around for almost as long as the genre has existed: if not imaginatively stationed on other worlds, they have almost certainly, in some form or the other, been extrapolated into our own. It’s even the sole reason some of us love science fiction so much in the first place. For many, it's the simple pleasure of marvelling at a truly ingenuous concoction of random animal body parts that keep them returning to their favourite genre, and for others, it’s the possibilities latent in the entire notion of alien contact itself.

So it comes as no surprise when Stephen Hawking and Yuri Milner recently announced a $100-million initiative to find intelligent life out there in the universe. What was a largely fledgeling effort by the SETI (The Search For Extraterrestial Intelligence) Institute thus far has now received a cosmic shot in the arm. Almost on cue, NASA announced its discovery of an Earth-like planet, Kepler 352 – the most tantaling similarity, perhaps, being that it’s year is 382 days.

While chances are that nothing might ultimately result from either of these, it's a testament to the sheer human need to know, with some amount of certainty, just how lonely we truly are in this universe, if at all.

Thankfully, on the imaginative forefront, science fiction authors of the 20th century have certainly not been slackers when it comes to imagining scenarios of first contact, or communication between humans and aliens. Here are just a few of the most striking examples of what can be achieved within the genre, and how the convention of first contact can enable searing glimpses into the achievements and limitations alike of human imagination:

Way Station, Clifford Simak (1963)
Known largely as someone who brought a pastoral sensibility to a genre that in lesser hands could quickly devolve into gun-toting space western, Simak's Way Station envisions an alien visitor who delegates Enoch Wallace, a Civil War veteran from America, to serve as the administrator of the eponymous way-station on Earth for extraterrestrials traveling across galaxies. It is charming in how it injects a certain mode of storytelling with a renewed awe for the universe and its beings at large, very reminiscent at times of Olaf Stapledon's ouevre.

Roadside Picnic, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (1971)
Those thrown off balance by the difficult Tarkovsky adaptation Stalker should give the source material a serious try, as it's one of the most disturbing meditations on the subject ever penned. Aliens have visited Earth and left, without any intimation as to why they arrived and how. But in their wake they have left behind zones littered with objects that are intriguing and often dangerous in how they defy Earth physics. These zones draw humans to them like moths to the fire, and in the historical context of the Soviet Union in which it was written, and the severe censorship its publication entailed, it's easy to see that it touched a nerve, or several. But it does so without disintegrating into allegory, and that is just one of its many strengths.

The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Gene Wolfe (1972)
Probably the trickiest book on this list, as well as being the most difficult, although not for lack of the quality of writing. If anything, it's one of the most beautifully written books on alien contact ever published, with inspirations from Proust and Kafka abound. The book centres around a human colony on an alien planet, who have allegedly wiped out the local native population. However, by the end of the fragmented narrative, a truly sinister hypothesis is provided some startling justification. One of the earliest examinations of Post-colonialism in science fiction, it rewards the reader exponentially on the re-read, as is the case with any Gene Wolfe novel.

Gateway, Frederik Pohl (1977)
The Grand Master's masterpiece, Gateway is yet again one of those science fiction novels purportedly on aliens: where the aliens are only ever hinted at, since all they've left behind for a far future dystopia-tinged humanity are spacecrafts replete with weird tech. No one knows how they exactly work, or where they go, but soon it becomes an occasion for games of cosmic Russian Roulette. For the spacecrafts can either carry you to places that make you rich, or kill you in the process. Or worse.

At The Mountains of Madness, H. P. Lovecraft (1931)
Antarctica has been a source of inspiration for many stories in the realm of science fiction, such as Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr. (later filmed as The Thing by John Carpenter, in 1982) thanks to its desolate immensity and frigid terrain, and it also became the setting of what many claim is Lovecraft's finest. Scientific explorers find remains of ancient lifeforms that adhere to no known psychology known to man, and soon the reader is made privy to the existence of the Old Ones. Underlying it all is the central philosophy accentuating all of Lovecraft's fiction: that man is ineffective in the face of the cosmos and its ways, and ultimately irrelevant. Also, Lovecraft's attention to the exhaustive detail points to his then emerging need to vindicate the imaginative process with a scientific methodology and temperament.

Oh, and apparently there's a Guillermo Del Toro movie in the works too!

One could go on to include several more novels; the list is virtually endless: Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem, Blindsight, by Peter Watts, Sarah Canary, by Karen Joy Fowler are all superb examples of what critic Darko Suvin called “cognitive estrangement”, utilising extraterrestrials. But you might soon find as you begin reading them, that it's not so much about how the aliens look and how many appendages they possess. Instead, if you read between the lines, what soon emerges is simply that the “novum”of alien contact becomes a fascinating means of examining gross human insecurities and limitations, in all its creative regalia. Although I'd be the last person to argue against the simpler joys of visualising tentacles and serrated teeth myself.

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